Underground New York Public Library

The Underground New York Public Library is a visual library featuring the Reading-Riders of the NYC subways.
This project is not affiliated with The New York Public Library


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"Phantom," by Jo Nesbø

Translated by Don Bartlett

Borrow I Read

UNYPL in 2012: Orthodox Jews: What Are They Reading? 

I ventured into the Underground Library in part as a tribute to the role of literature in my life. Literature, and the subways, connected me to a larger world. I come from an orthodox background and I thought I’d leave that world alone with my photography. This wasn’t possible to do in the UNYPL though, as Orthodox Jews turned out to be a prevalent part of those who are reading underground. At first, I was hesitant about my relationship with these readers. It was a personal journey, but taking these photographs gave way to a new perspective for me, a new relationship from behind the camera. It’s one more aspect of the UNYPL that I’m grateful for. 

1-4: The Talmud

The Talmud is the most popular text that I’ve noticed with demonstrably Orthodox Jews underground. It’s an extensive work, carried and studied in separate volumes. Assembled over the course of five hundred years, it’s essentially like a great discussion forum that examines all aspects of the Torah and of Jewish life. 

5-7: The Torah

There was an interesting response when I posted photos of Orthodox Jews reading the Torah. I received messages that suggested I might have been mistaken in identifying the book. While the Talmud is studied religiously and daily, the Torah itself isn’t. I’m very careful about the titles though, and I don’t post if I’m in doubt. These people were reading the Torah, but, without exception, the photos of them were taken only on a Thursday evening or a Friday morning. Turns out that in preparation for the weekly Sabbath, when a Torah portion is read in the synagogue, Orthodox Jews can be found studying the Torah directly. 

8: "Catching Fire," by Suzanne Collins

This reader is wearing a Kippah, indicating that he might be orthodox*. Catching Fire would be regarded as a secular text in an orthodox world. Some Orthodox Jews refrain from reading secular texts, preferring to immerse themselves only in their tradition. Others appreciate it, and some even laud secular literature as a means towards greater spiritual heights. 

9: The Passover Haggadah 

A seasonal photo, this was taken a few days before the Passover holiday. The Haggadah discusses the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. One of the important aspects of the Passover holiday is the relaying of the historical account, and this man was reading the Haggadah, with commentary, in preparation for doing just that. 

10: The Shulchan Aruch, by Rabbi Yosef Karo

The Shulchan Aruch is the definitive text of practical Jewish Law. In it are the rules for how to conduct oneself in every facet of life. These people were the first Orthodox Jews that came to the UNYPL. I was trying unsuccessfully to photograph someone reading Julius Caesar,  when they offered me to photograph them instead. You can read a short anecdote about it here.  

*edited from my assumption that he was orthodox. 

"The Talmud"

Borrow I Read

"The Torah with Rashi’s Commentary: Vol. 1, Genesis," Edited by Rabbi Yisrael Herczeg

Borrow I Read

I went up to him after I took the picture, to find out what he was reading. He welcomed my interruption seamlessly; it was like he had been expecting me. He showed me that he was reading commentary on The Book of Genesis. Then he asked me, “Do you want to hear a great idea?” I said yes happily. He said he was concentrating on the very first sentence in Genesis, where it mentions what was created in the world first. He pointed at the sentence in his book and said, “If you read the full sentence, it says that the sky and the earth were created first. But, if you read just the first half of the sentence, the Hebrew word in the middle reveals that it was actually the alphabet that was created before anything else.” He took his finger off the page then, and he pointed at the subway doors. “You see these subway doors,” he told me, “they really are made of metal.” In a quieter tone, full of meditative curiosity, he continued. “At their foundation though, they’re really made of letters.” He lowered his hand then and looked around the subway car, in a way as if he was literally reading the atmosphere. 

"The Talmud"

Borrow I Read

Sunday Bible

on the left he’s reading "Devarim (Deuteronomy) with Rashi." on the right he’s reading "Rambam La’Am: Sefer Tahara," by Maimonides.

Devarim (Deuteronomy): Borrow I Read

Rambam La’Am: Borrow I Read

"The Talmud"

Borrow I Read

He’s reading “Kehilat Yaakov.” She’s reading “The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story,” by Richard Preston

Kehilat YaakovBorrow I Read

The Hot Zone: Borrow I Read

Sunday Morning Bible

Hebrew Bible

Borrow I Read

she’s reading "Strong Motion," by Jonathan Franzen. he’s reading “Psalms,” by King David.

Strong Motion: Borrow I Read 

Psalms: Borrow I Read 

"The Talmud" 

Read The Talmud

"The Garden of Emunah: A Practical Guide to Life," by Rabbi Shalom Arush 

Read The Garden of Emunah

"Avos D’Rebbi Nosson," Translated by Avraham Yaakov Finkel 

Read Avos D’Rebbi Nosson

Sunday Morning Bible

(Pocket Sized Hebrew Bible)

Read The Hebrew Bible

"The Talmud"

Read The Talmud

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